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Bhopal Gas Leak: 33 Years On, No Solution For Idle Toxic Waste At The Site That Continues To Pollute The Environment

Contaminated soil, air and water have been the hallmarks of many areas of Bhopal, as non-discarded toxic waste lies idly at the Union Carbide factory and poisons the city’s environment

33 years of Bhopal gas tragedy
  • A radius of over three kilometers remains polluted due to the gas leak
  • Several initiatives to clear the waste from the factory site have failed
  • Earlier this year, the Union government promised to take remedial steps

New Delhi: Certain events leave scars for a lifetime on a nation and never go away. On the night of December 2, 1984, India woke up to the shocking news of a gas leak in Bhopal, at the Union Carbide India Limited (UCIL). The leak immediately affected 5,00,000 people and several deaths, estimates of which range from 2,000 to 8,000. The leak also affected several generations of population in Bhopal and reports of health complications and deformities kept emerging for years. 33 years after the tragedy, people of Bhopal remain undaunted in their quest for proper medical facilities, better living conditions and removal of toxic waste that still remains at the gas leak site.

The Bhopal gas tragedy spawned a number of concerns, of which the environmental ones have continued to remain unabated for the past 33 years. The gas leak had an obvious and lasting effect on the factory’s infrastructure, nearby soil and water. Samples taken for testing by the state government in 1986 showed that the soil and groundwater near the leak site was heavily polluted with toxic chemicals such as mercury, pesticides, chromium and several others. Removal of toxic waste from the gas leak site was proposed by several bodies and it was in 2008 that the Madhya Pradesh High Court ordered the toxic waste to be incinerated in Gujarat, which did not materialise due to protests from several activists. Finally, it was ruled by the Supreme Court in August 2012 that toxic waste from the plant site was to be cleared within six months, an order that is yet to take effect.

Nearly 350 tonnes of toxic waste lies in the vacant Union Carbide factory premises, which have heavily polluted soil, water and air over a radius of three kilometres from the site. The state government has shrugged off the responsibility, citing lack of capability to handle, package and transport the waste for incineration. As a result the waste just continues to lie and contaminate Bhopal’s environment.

The Bhopal gas tragedy will go down in history as an incident which has continued to affect generations even after the horrifying nights of December 1984. The waste which continues to lie idle in the factory premises is affecting the water, air and soil for a long time. Even today, people continue to consume contaminated fish as nearby lakes have become polluted and breathe contaminated air, said N.D. Jayaprakash, President, Bhopal Gas Peedith Sangharsh Sahayog Samiti.

Mr Jayaprakash’s concerns are valid as despite the passage of over 30 years, the toxic waste continues to hamper Bhopal’s environment. Tenders are yet to be issued on the whole waste removal process and the state government continues to skirt the issue. As per the initial plan following the Supreme Court’s orders in 2012, it was the responsibility of the state government to issue tenders for the waste clearance project, with the Central Chemicals Department supervising the project and Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) providing technical support. No tender has been issued so far, despite the the Supreme Court order five years ago.

The state government has not been involved, which has resulted in significant delay. Waste removal should be treated as a project and approached with a proper plan of execution. Unfortunately, the state has not responded the way it should have, said Mr Jayaprakash.

K.K. Dubey, Deputy Secretary, Bhopal Gas Tragedy Relief and Rehabilitation, Government of Madhya Pradesh stated that the state government was satisfied with incinerating methods which were employed on an experimental basis in 2015. But he maintained that the tender ought to be issued by CPCB as the state government has no prior experience in issuing tenders for such projects.

We have provided the CPCB with all the necessary details and once they issue a tender, we can immediately begin the incineration process. CPCB’s inputs are necessary as they are better equipped to understand the cost dynamics of such a project, and float the tender accordingly, said Mr Dubey.

The CPCB, on its part, is not too keen to float the tender as it prefers to keep its role limited to supplying technical support for the whole project. B. Vinod Babu, Divisional Head of Waste Management at CPCB said that tenders are always floated by the state government. The CPCB has committed technical support but said that once the state executes the tender, it can begin the whole waste clearance process.

For Bhopal, when it comes to the gas leak tragedy, tussle between the government and its departments is not new. In 2007, a proposal to airlift the toxic waste and incinerate it in Germany was put forward but did not materialise. Incineration bids in Maharashtra and Gujarat also failed as state governments showed reluctance, citing environmental concerns. In March 2017, the then Minister of State of Environment Anil Madhav Dave said that the Union government was committed to dispose hazardous materials from the factory site safely.

In 33 years, Bhopal has received many assurances, but none of which have translated into active removal of toxic waste from the gas leak site. Much damage has already been done to Bhopal’s environment from the day the leak happened. If the Union government’s promise is anything to go by, necessary stakeholders must come together to clear Bhopal’s toxic waste heap immediately. This swift and firm action will ensure at least partial justice for the Bhopal gas tragedy victims and save the city’s future generations from further physical and environmental degradation.

Also Read: Delhi’s Air Pollution Emergency: The Green Court Raps Delhi Government For Holding India-Sri Lanka Test Despite Hazardous Air Quality

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